I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10.
The Lord performs awesome wonders that change things for peoples and nations.
The Strategy of the Lectionary in Ordinary Time.
After Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, the Christian year has over six months of “ordinary time,” time between the holy seasons of Advent-Epiphany and Lent-Pentecost. The Lectionary selections for this period are not fixed by sacred themes, but are designed for general exposure of the people to the scriptures. Each of the three years of the Lectionary cycle has its own strategy, but two times through the cycle (six years) includes most of the Christian Bible in the Sunday readings.
In Year C, the primary readings from the Hebrew scriptures provide a history of prophecy. The selections move from the work of Elijah through the great eighth century prophets Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, then dwell at length on the words of Jeremiah in the last period of the kingdom of Judah, and conclude with some post-Exilic prophesies.
In the same period the Epistle selections are taken from Paul’s letters, reading most of Galatians and Colossians for two months, and, after a period on the Letter to the Hebrews, continuing with the Pastoral letters written in Paul’s name. A block of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews is included in each year of the Lectionary cycle, approximately a third of the Letter in each year. The readings in Year C are the third part (chapters 11-13), dealing with the Christian pilgrimage in the world.
The Gospel readings during Ordinary Time of Year C are taken entirely from Luke, covering much of chapters 7 through 21, though mainly selected from the materials of the Journey to Jerusalem in chapters 10-19, where many teachings found only in Luke are given.
I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39.
For the next several weeks our readings from the Hebrew scriptures concern the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The Special Note below on the background to Elijah and Elisha may be useful for this group of readings.
Our reading presents a great ordeal – contest – to determine what religion the people of the kingdom will follow.
On the surface it is a one-sided contest: one prophet for Yahweh against 450 prophets for Ba‘al (with another 400 backups in the wings, see 18:19). It is an all-or-nothing contest, with drastic political consequences. The kingdom is not big enough for both Elijah and Jezebel; one will have to go, and even though he wins the contest, it is Elijah who becomes the hunted man (19:1-2). (This non-sequitur is probably due to the conventional story-pattern also reflected in the Exodus story: after winning release from Egypt in the tenth plague [Exodus 12], the Israelites are still pursued by Pharaoh out into the wilderness [Exodus 14:5-9].)
The contest is about which deity controls the weather – who can make it rain.
The first words of the Elijah story-cycle announce to the king the coming of a three-year drought. The drought raises to the Nth degree the issue of who gives rain (I Kings 17:1). The contest on Mount Carmel settles the issue in favor of the one true God, Yahweh, God of Israel. (The Canaanite Ba‘al was a storm god bringing the rainy season, just as was Yahweh in his youth, e.g., Judges 5:4-5; Nahum 1:3b-5. Psalm 29 is apparently a Ba‘al hymn to the storm-god adapted for praise of Yahweh.)
The details of Elijah’s procedure are intriguing (verses 30-35). He rebuilds an old Yahweh altar. He uses exactly 12 stones, he pours 12 jars of water over the wood and altar, and he digs a trench around the altar, all of which is probably cosmic symbolism. The Ba‘al prophets in their turn (in the optional reading, verses 22-29) had performed ritual dances and bodily mutilations, presumably congruent with their deity’s character.
It is clear that in northern Israelite tradition this contest on Mount Carmel was the equivalent of the Exodus: it was the violent triumph of Yahweh over the gods of the land, determining the future of the chosen people.
Though this was a north-Israelite event, its truth would outlast that kingdom and endure for prophets and reforming kings in the later kingdom of Judah.
The psalm is certainly a response to the prophetic reading: the triumphant Yahweh of Mount Carmel is celebrated as the lord of all – cosmos and nations. It is well to hear the key verses in a translation (the New Jerusalem Bible) that retains the proper name Yahweh, the God who emerged from the polytheistic world of Canaan to take possession, in time, of a modest servant people with astonishing destinies before them.
Give to Yahweh, families of nations,
give to Yahweh glory and power,
give to Yahweh the glory due his name!
Say among the nations, “Yahweh is king.”
The world is set firm, it cannot be moved.
He will judge the nations with justice.
[For he is] coming to judge the earth,
he will judge the world with saving justice,
and the nations with constancy.
(Verses 7-8a, 10, 13, New Jerusalem Bible.)
While the prophetic and psalm readings proclaim that there is no other God, the opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians insists that there is no other gospel.
This is the first of six Sunday readings from Galatians, which will cover most of the contents of that fiery letter. The opening is unusual among Paul’s letters because he leaps into his urgent business after only a short address and greeting. “I am astonished...,” he probably shouted to his amanuensis. How could these “foolish” Galatians (3:1) so quickly distort the central message Paul had brought to these non-Jewish folks in central Asia Minor?
After pronouncing a couple of curses on those who distort the gospel, Paul insists that the true gospel is not human (thus variable) but the result of divine revelation. “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (verses 11-12, NRSV). Next week’s reading will develop this claim in detail.
Like Elijah, Paul was a witness to something decisive for the future of God’s people, and his life was at stake in proclaiming it to the peoples of the nations.
The Gospel reading is not a mighty act of God, settling the destinies of peoples. Instead it is an episode in Jesus’ Galilean ministry that proved to have many meanings for the later followers. Our reading is one version of Jesus healing the servant (or son) of an Officer in Capernaum.
Second generation Christians told (at least) three versions of this story: (1) Matthew 8:5-13; (2) Luke 7:1-10; and (3) John 4:46-54. Each version has its own emphasis.
Matthew presents the basic story in its simplest form: the Centurion with the sick servant declares that Jesus can heal simply by giving a command. Jesus’ authority is like that of a military commander: he speaks and it is done. Matthew adds a special point: This great faith in a non-Jewish person is a prophecy that the peoples of the nations will replace the current Jews in the kingdom to come (Matthew 8:11-12).
In the Gospel of John, the “royal official” does not make a fancy statement about Jesus’ word of command. When, however, Jesus, in Cana, says that the officer’s son, in Capernaum, is now healed, the officer believes (has faith in) Jesus, and his faith is subsequently justified by the healing that happened at a distance in Capernaum (John 4:50-53).
Luke’s version of the story has several distinctive features. (1) Here the Centurion never comes in contact with Jesus. Instead, he sends messengers to Jesus. In fact, he sends two sets of messengers, one made up of Jewish elders of the community (verse 3) and one made up of his own “friends,” perhaps not all Jewish (verse 6).
(2) The Jewish messengers give powerful reasons for why Jesus should help this foreign resident in their community: “...for he loves our people [ethnos, nation], and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (verse 5, NRSV).
Thus, what Luke presents is a Roman career soldier who is a decided friend of the Jewish people in Galilee. (There were no Roman military units based in Galilee, so such a man would have been in the service of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee from 4 BCE to 39 CE.) The rest of the story shows that this non-Jewish pillar of the community was a man of faith. Besides his great sympathy with the Jewish tradition, he has acquired a firm belief in Jesus’ power to heal, and seeks the benefit of this power for his servant, who is at the point of death.
What Luke has in common with Matthew is the Centurion’s long declaration about the power of an authoritative command. “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” for he, the Centurion, is also a man of authority whom subordinates obey without hesitation (verses 7-8). This is what Luke and Matthew see as the great “faith” of this foreigner. He has heard the message of Genesis 1. God speaks, and it happens. THAT is the “faith,” of which Jesus says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (verse 9).
(It is a bit ironic that in Luke’s text Jesus never utters that word of power! Luke doesn’t bother to say, “ And Jesus said, ‘Let him be healed.’” Hearers are expected to fill in the gaps themselves!)
Special Note: The Elijah and Elisha stories.
It was in the time of Elijah (and Elisha) that Israel’s obligation to serve “Yahweh alone” became a great public issue. The revelation that Israel must have no other God than Yahweh was the point of the battle of the gods on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18), and the rest of the Elijah-Elisha cycle of stories demonstrates at length how radically serious that revelation had to be taken in Israel. (Jehu’s revolution, II Kings 9-10, slaughtered many people, ostensibly for religious reasons, but clearly to eliminate supporters of the old dynasty who could become future threats.)
The overall framework of the Elijah-Elisha block of materials in I Kings 17 through II Kings 10 is that of a great dynastic revolution. The framework is clearer if we concentrate only on the following passages, which are the essential components of the Elijah-Elisha and King Jehu story:
I Kings 17 Elijah brings drought and works miracles.
I Kings 18 Elijah brings rain, defeating Baal prophets on Mount Carmel.
I Kings 19 Elijah receives God’s revolutionary commands on Mount Horeb.
I Kings 21 Ahab and Jezebel are condemned because of Naboth’s vineyard.
II Kings 1 Elijah condemns Ahab’s son Ahaziah.
II Kings 2 Elijah’s Mantle passes to Elisha (fiery chariot scene).
II Kings 8:7-15 Elisha sanctions revolution in Damascus.
II Kings 9:1-13 Elisha anoints Jehu king for revolution in Israel.
II Kings 9-10 Jehu executes the judgment of the Lord on Ahab’s house.
It may be noticed that the Elijah-Elisha story is parallel in basic structure to the traditional Israelite story. Elijah and Elisha replicate the work of Moses and Joshua. Elijah’s defeat of the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel is the same kind of decisive mighty deed of the Lord as the defeat of Pharaoh in the Exodus; Elijah’s trip to Mount Horeb (with miraculous feeding in the wilderness) and the revelation there of God’s plan parallels Moses at Mount Sinai; and the revolution precipitated by Elisha, parallel to Joshua, equals the Conquest of a new life order for God’s people (meaning the reign of a new dynasty with a radically new religious policy).
The history behind the tradition. All of the Elijah-Elisha materials were preserved in later generations in Jerusalem, harmonized with a Jerusalem viewpoint. Somehow that Jerusalem viewpoint had accepted the internal rationale of this story cycle, accepted the Jehu dynasty’s own view that the God of Israel had sanctioned Jehu’s rule in Israel just as God had sanctioned the dynasty of David in Jerusalem. It was by Yahweh’s own command that Jehu and four generations of his heirs reigned over the northern kingdom from 842 to about 745 BCE, the longest single dynasty of that kingdom. Jehu’s revolution was a religious war, fought to the finish, leaving no doubt that there is only one God in Israel’s destiny.
As Jerusalem saw it a hundred and thirty years later (in the time of king Hezekiah), the northern kingdom did not sufficiently learn that lesson, and suffered the fate of defeat and exile because of their apostasy from Yahweh. Jerusalem preserved the stories of Elijah and Elisha to make sure that Judah mastered the lesson of Yahweh as the Only God of Israel. It was to that God that the Judeans looked for their own deliverance and whatever peace was possible for them.
“Minimalist” historians of Israel would have it that all the Elijah-Elisha stories are simply fiction. As a serious historical issue, however, there is no satisfactory explanation of the details and few tight connections with external history that these stories reflect without some historical core to the Elijah figure and Jehu’s religiously-based dynastic revolution.
The Elijah era, with the emergence of the Yahweh-Only religious-political movement, was a decisive point in the evolution that created the Hebrew scriptures as we know them.